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Why Study the Puritans?

The word "puritanical" has very bad connotations.  It is not flattering to call someone "puritanical."  It suggests rigidness, inflexibility and harshness.  Many of the the group from which this word is derived, the Puritans, may have been like that on an individual basis, but we can find those kinds of people everywhere.  The heart of the Puritans is not like that.  The riches of the legacy of the Puritans is there if we care to look for it.

J.I. Packer's book A Quest For Godliness:  The Puritan Vision of the Christian Life discusses these riches.  Over the next number of weeks, I will share his observations from this book.  The first chapter, "Why We Need the Puritans" gives a good introduction to the benefit of studying them.  Packer outlines some reasons why we should study them.

  1. The integration of their daily lives.  There was no disjunction between the sacred and secular; all was sacred.
  2. The quality of their spiritual experience.
  3. Their passion for effective action.
  4. The program for family stability.
  5. Their sense of human worth.
  6. The ideal of church renewal.

Packer summarizes it in this way:

Puritanism was essentially a movement for church reform, pastoral renewal and evangelism, and spiritual revival; and in addition - indeed, as a direct expression of its zeal for God's honour - it was a worldview, a total Christian philosophy, in intellectual terms a Protestantised and updated medievalism, and in terms of spirituality, a reformed monasticism outside the cloister and away from monkish vows.

Packer believes that the Puritan worldview should appal to three different kinds of Christians, the "restless experientialists," the "entrenched intellectuals," and "the disaffected deviationists."  The Puritan approach to things will answer the weaknesess found in these three groups.   Judging from what Packer said in this section, I suspect that Puritan thinking brings a balance between the intellect and the experience.   The discussion Packer makes of these three groups was excellent; you need to read the book to see his conclusions.

One of the first things Packer says is that "Spiritual warfare made the Puritans what they were."  I thought that was a good way to begin it.  I wonder if the heritage they left would have been the same had they not been tested the way they were.  Perhaps it is the seriousness of trial and suffering that shaped their attitudes and perhaps contributed to their reputation of being rather hard and stern.

I am looking forward to digging deeper into this great volume.


Lessons in God's sovereignty

At the ladies' bible study I attend every other Monday night, we are studying Exodus.  We just finished going through the plagues, the Passover, and the flight from Egypt.  We're at the point where the Israelites are being fed manna.

Over the past couple of weeks, the reality that Pharaoh's heart was hardened has come up frequently.  There are about thirty of us there, and the reactions are many and varied.  The overwhelming majority are uncomfortable with the words "the Lord hardened Pharaoh's heart."  All through the plagues and then even after he let the people go, God hardens Pharoh's heart.  As we read along, we know that the reason God does this is to reveal who He is both to the Egyptians and to the Israelites.  Despite the hard-heartedness of Pharaoh, God still delivers.  We learn that God is sovereign, even in the hardening of the heart of Pharaoh.  He made a promise to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and He intends to keep it.

There have been a lot of voices raised in our discussion about how it isn't "fair."  Even after we looked at a cross-reference in the New Testament, in Romans 9, there were some who were clearly uncomfortable with the idea that God hardens hearts.  One woman even objected to the use of Romans 9 because, she said quite disdainfully that, "People use that to support the idea of predestination."  I remained quiet.

I have thought about that evening quite a bit lately, about how we are uncomfortable with God's hardening of the heart of Pharaoh.  We want God to be sovereign over everything, but there are some things we are not too certain about.  I was thinking that I don't want to worship a God who is more concerned with what is fair than what is "just."  The idea of fairness is not fixed on anything.  What one sees as fair may differ from what I see as fair.  But justice is anchored in the Word of God and in the person of God.  There are a lot of lessons we are learning from the example of Moses, but I am learning far more about who God is, and that is really exciting.


Heart Aflame - February 21, 2010

Psalm 18:20

The Lord has dealt with me according to my righteousess; according to the cleanness of my hands he has rewarded me.  We ought to view the Holy Spirit as intending by the mouth of David to teach us the profitable doctrine, that the aid of god will never fail us, provided we follow our calling, keep ourselves within the limits which it prescribes, and undertake nothing without the command or warrant of God.  At the same time, let this truth be deeply fixed in our minds, that we can only begin an upright course of life when God of his good pleasure adopts us into his famiy, and in effectually calling, anticipates us by his grace, without which neither we nor any creature would give him an opportunity of bestowing this blessing upon us.

When the Scripture uses the word reward or recompense, it is not to show that God owes us any thing, and it is therefore a groundless and false conclusion to infer from this that there is any merit or worth in works.  God, as a just judge, rewards every man according to his works, but he does it in such a manner, as to show that all men are indebted to him, while he himself is under obligation to no one.  The reason is not only that which St. Augustine has assigned, namely, that God finds no rightousness in us to recompense, except what he himself has freely given us, but also because, forgiving the blemishes and imperfections which cleave to our works, he imputes to us for righteousness that which he might justly reject.  If, therefore, none of our works please God, unless the sin which mingles with them is pardoned, it follows, that the recompense which he bestows on account of them proceeds not from our merit, but from his free and undeserved grace.  We ought, however, to attend to the special reason why David here speaks of God rewarding him according to his righteousness.  He does not presumptuously thrust himself into the presence of God, trusting to or depending upon his own obedience to the law as the ground of his justification; but knowing that God approved the affection of his heart, and wishing to defend and acquit himself from the false and wicked calumnies of his enemies, he makes God himself the judge of his cause.


Soundtrack for a Saturday

My soundtrack today will the sound of voices; the voices of ladies.

Today, our church his having its annual ladies' conference.  Last year, we had Mary Kassian.  Despite really enjoying her book The Feminist Mistake, she was a little disappoiting.  A bit too psychobabbly for me and not enough bible.  This year, we're having a lady who is friends with one of our ladies ministry committee members.  This lady is reputed to be an excellent bible teacher and a woman whose faith has been tried and tested.  I'm curious to hear her.

But, yes, there will be a hum of ladies' voices all day, and often, sitting with a crowd all day tires me out.  The young woman who will be in the sound booth monitoring things during the music and general sessions has invited me into the soundbooth with her.  Perhaps I will go there.

So, off I go, with notebook in hand.  One of my friends has to be out of town during this conference, and she asked me to take notes for her, so having a purpose to go really will make it a productive day.


The difficult path of Irish Puritanism

I finished the book The Irish Puritans, by Crawford Gribben, and I must say, I really enjoyed it.  One of the benefits of reading good historical books is that it sends one down bunny trails to seek out other good books on the topic, and I found a few I would like to poke through that address the specific history of Protestantism in Ireland.

The path of the Puritans in Ireland was a difficult one.  James Ussher, the most famous of the Puritans in that country, was a moderate man, and loathe to seem the radical.  The Puritan forces, which were dominated by the English, were occasionally divided in how to proceed.  The course of Protestantism in England, Scotland and Ireland at this time was heavily influenced by the Stuart rulers who had no real passion for God, it seemed, but rather courted whichever group would help them control Parliament.  Ireland was a conquered people, and there was a division there as well between Old English, Catholic and New English groups.  Most of the influence of Protestantism was confined to the north, where there was also a mix of Scottish Protestantism.

The Puritans, at the very core of their beliefs, wanted to promote the pure gospel of Jesus Christ.  This was hard to do in Ireland given not only the mix of individuals, but also given the animosity that was directed against the English.  And in all fairness, much of the English evangelization of the country had more to do with promoting the empire than it did the gospel.  The line between faith and national pride seemed to be a bit blurry at times.  When Cromwell took the lead during the time of the Protectorate, Irish-English relations were really not improved.  James Ussher eventually left Ireland, taking with him his moderate course.  The political tensions and the years of rebellion in Ireland seemed to eclipse any attempts at spreading the gospel.  Cromwell, while revered by some, is seen as a villian by many in Ireland.  I must say that when I studied this period of Irish history in university, I didn't think much of Cromwell.

Gribben points out that that spreading the gospel in such a politically volatile place was difficult.  He says this:

... the gospel will never win Ireland while it comes packaged in any kind of national flag - red, white, and blue, or green, white and gold.  National flags are what Christians trip over.

Gribben points out that Ireland is still in need of the gospel.  I like it very much when the historian takes us from the past back into the present, and he does that at the end of the book:

Today, as never before, Ireland needs the gospel.  It needs Christians who will stand, only as Christians, for the gospel, and only the gospel.  It needs Christians who come to bring the gospel, and only the gospel, who will be prepared to abandon the importation of their home cultures if they find that those cultures present any kind of barrier at all to the spread of the Word.

Next Tuesday, Lord willing, I am going to continue with my look at the Puritans, this time through the eyes of J.I. Packer.  A good friend of mine, and a fellow blogger, gave me a surprise for my birthday and in the mail last week I received Packer's book A Quest for Godliness - The Puritan Vision of the Christian Life.  I am going to share some of what I learn from that book.  Tuesday is my "history" day, and I am rather parked here at the Puritan era at the moment, and I'm quite enjoying it.